There’s a feeling to this city, a dream I keep having, when the city is appearing through the riverfog as I cross Sarsfield bridge. The people could be spectres in the cold December weather. There is nothing special about Christmas in Limerick, or Limerick at Christmas, nothing you wouldn’t find everywhere and anywhere. Too much shopping, too many people, always too many cars. The city is maddeningly full and completely empty at the same time. We could all be phantoms, as if we shed our heavy jackets and layers there might really be nothing underneath. The wind comes blowing freezing up from the river, and I thought about how the river was once considered a Goddess, and wished we’d kept some of that paganism still, to keep some old magic alive, to keep any magic alive.
Everything was moving, rushing, except her. Her, making you feel like there’s a tomorrow where everything will make sense. Her, looking like words aren’t enough. When I was young and still believed in language I’d look for words in other languages, in case some other language said it clearer. The Irish ones stayed with me, taibhreamh, tearmann, taibhreamh meaning dream, tearmann meaning sanctuary. Out of all my lists they are the words that stayed. I like how my mouth moves when I speak them, as though they are a breathing exercise for calmness.
I remember the first time I saw her, Holly Golightly-like, waifish, looking like the cold had formed around her bones, freezing, despite all the scarves and hats. Then she smiled, and a smile so wide and bright, brilliant, electric, a match for any light on the street and the sky about the street mixed with fairy lights and stars and her smile still the most amazing thing you could see for miles. It flashed and sparked and sparkled, her entire face alight, and suddenly I wanted to count the lights on the strings above her head to see how many bulbs she could outshine. I always hated the use of the word waifish, as though we should praise starvation, but that’s how she looked, except when she smiled. She looked so still in all the crowds. She looked straight at me. She looked like Holly in Tiffany’s, all dark hairs and dark eyes and a flowing grey coat tucked up against her neck.
The cars on O’Connell street faded and the moving metal wall that divides this city didn’t even seem so oppressive just then. She was standing right by Carlton Coffee, the plate glass window was fogged up behind her, as though she was locked out of a warmer world. I remember how tired I was, I’d been trying to sleep under a sleepless moon, one of those moons that wake you at half one in the morning and make you lie there awake. You don’t know if you should get up and read, or make lists of all the mistakes you ever made, or just lie there and wait for enough light to seep in to make it ok to get up.
Holly looks like nature brought to life, if you watch the film, but you can never tell someone something like that. I’m just a ragged robin reed, all red and bare in the winter. Standing in Limerick then I could nearly believe the river was once a Pagan Goddess, that somehow all the colours of the estuary could be found in her face. Holly Golighty’s hair, it’s not very romantic to say, is the exact same colour as the reeds down beyond Westfields in winter. You couldn’t say that to anyone and not insult them but I’ve always loved that colour, or colours. You see it first and it all looks uniform but slowly your eyes adjust and you see there’s a spectrum of colours between the shades, almost as varied as the infinity of numbers between each number. They were there all along, you just needed the light to see them. You can stand on Barrington’s pier, just at sunset and watch all the colours appear and fade as the sun sets down the estuary, the river is a blazing red when the sky is clear and cold. You could believe this world was really full of hidden life, and Goddesses could become rivers, and strangers could become real lovers somehow.
I thought all this, all this, in the minute, the moment I saw her, as though time had stopped just long enough to allow me feel forever in an instant. I wanted to show her that warmer world. You can’t just tell a girl she looks like a river though, or even a River Goddess, even when it’s true, maybe especially when it’s true. Sometimes though, you can’t say anything else. I walked up and said it, “you’re just like a river”, knowing how mad the words must sound, knowing how mad I must look. It wasn’t helped by Rebel Rebel suddenly blaring out of Carlton as the door swung open. I could barely hear her response “I needed to hear that” she said, “I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to notice”, and her smile could have powered Ardnacrusha, and lit the entire city.
The only thing that counts is how someone makes you feel, some make you better or worse, but she, and she alone, makes me feel marvellous, that there are still miracles in this world. The magic was there all along, you just needed the eyes to see it. She’s the reason my favourite Christmas song is Rebel Rebel, she’s the reason I think that’s even a Christmas song at all.